For a few years now Samsung has been making their smartphones to the same design spec, mostly using plastic for the materials and using a similar body design with each new iteration of their devices. That changed with the launch of the Samsung Galaxy Alpha, which is a brand new bread of smartphone from the manufacture.
In fact the Galaxy Alpha is probably the best looking smartphone from Samsung to date (in our opinion), whilst still packing a ton of specs that are sure to keep the tech heads happy.
That said, despite its high-end price tag the smartphone is still out-specced by the Samsung Galaxy S5 in a number of departments, however we think that the specs might not be your main reason for choosing the Galaxy Alpha as your daily driver, we think that would be down to both the phones fantastic design and the fact that it runs on Android.
The weirdest thing is that despite it being an Android phone, it actually looks to copy a lot of the elements from the iPhone 4, featuring a similar aluminium rim that only differentiates itself thanks to the raised edges on the top and bottom of the phone, and then it even features a speaker grill that looks as if it was taken straight from an iPhone, just with a few more holes.
We can however forget all that because Samsung has finally done what we have been suggesting for a few years now, and that was to make a phone that looks as premium as its price tag, something which Samsung has been struggling with for many years.
The Alpha is not just a showpiece, it’s also extremely practical. This is thanks to the lower edges of the phone which allow you to nicely rest your fingers on the side of the phone whilst in use, making the phone feel firm in the hand, whilst staying comfortable to hold when in use, all despite the fact that the phone features a 4.7 inch display.
In fact the phone is just 6.7mm thin and weighs only 115 grams, making it one o the thinnest and lightest smartphones on the market currently.
Getting to the buttons on the Alpha is also pretty easy, with the power button conveniently placed on the top right edge, and the volume rocker on the exact opposite side. Both of these buttons are both easy to find and satisfying to press, despite the fact that they may be on the slightly thin side.
Samsung does however return to its usual design techniques with the rear of the device, which features the same soft to touch polycarbonate backing that we have seen on previous Samsung smartphones. That isn’t exactly a bad thing, in fact we really like the backing of the Alpha for two main reasons, it feels great in the hand, and its also really grippy.
Really we are just grateful that they didn’t use the same leather stitching as is used in the Note.
The back also has one more added extra, that is that the rear plate is actually removable, that means that the user can easily swap out their battery, without having to take the phone to the shop, and it also means there’s none of those dreadful SIM/ microSD card slots on the side of the device.
As previously mentioned, the Samsung Galaxy Alpha features a 4.7 inch screen, which is slightly smaller than some of Samsung’s other models, but plenty big enough for the average use cases. Of course if you wish to use your phone for daily media consumption, and not an actual phone, then something that resembles the size of a small tablet might be a better option for you.
The only real problem with this display however is its resolution, set at only 720p, it’s not exactly the best display in a smartphone for this price range, in fact it’s quite a way from that, however we have yet to see many 4.7 inch smartphones with a 1080p display, so that might be the reason why.
In fact you won’t really notice any problems with the sharpness or quality of the device, and thanks to the Super AMOLED technology inside of the device, graphics actually feature rich looking colours and a nice range of contrast.
One of the biggest new features on the Samsung Galaxy Alpha is the fingerprint sensor that is situated on the home button, it works just like Apple’s Touch ID, however we didn’t find it to be quite as accurate or as easy to use as the Touch ID variant.
This is because of simply hold your finger on the home button, Samsung have opted for a swipe down button, which means that you have to swipe your finger from the bottom of the screen over the rectangular home button, we found that this did work sometimes, but most of the time it took us a few tries to get it to activate.
Thankfully Samsung’s fingerprint scanner does have all the same integration that Touch ID has, allowing you to secure both your lock screen and a number of apps with Touch ID.
On top of that Samsung has also opted to build a number of fitness tracking features into the Galaxy Alpha, combining the S Health application with that same heart rate monitor that was added to the Samsung Galaxy S5.
To use the sensor one simply enters the heart rate section of the S Health app and selects the option to measure their heart rate, then all the user has to do is hold their finger against the small red light on the back of the phone.
This all works great and the sensor seems to provide accurate readers almost all of the time, however it will only be useful to a selection of people, and for most the feature will likely remain unused.
Thankfully however the Alpha does have a number of other fitness functions, including the ability to track calorie intake and the users fitness routines like walking, running, cycling and hiking. This is all done via the phones pedometer, which can track your steps and show your progress towards a press daily goal, and the phone’s GPS sensor, which will be able to show your distance covered.
In terms of the Alpha’s software, it runs on Android 4.4.4 KitKat alongside Samsung’s TouchWiz UI overlay.
As usual the Samsung UI is okay, but it definitely still needs work, we find it still to be a little too bloated, and would prefer it if Samsung took a similar route to what Sony do with their Android smartphones, adding their own new features, whilst keeping a close to original design of the Android interface.
That said some of the features that Samsung has included are quite useful, this includes some of the widgets which have been included by Samsung, which allow the user to quickly add information to the home screen such as the weather and time widget, and a number of other widgets like the steps counter which provides a quick look at your daily step count.
Samsung has also included something called My Magazine on the Alpha, which uses Flipboard to show a selection of stories from the user’s selected sections. It all works well in premise, but in actual use My Magazine takes a long time to load content, and doesn’t work nearly as well as the actual Flipboard application.
Samsung has also added their own notification menu with the UI, which adds a number of functional features to the Android notification center, however it is very unattractive, with strange circular blue toggles that don’t seem to go with the rest of the interface. This is continued in the settings interface, making the job of finding particular setting extremely hard.
The lock screen has been done pretty well however, providing quick links to the latest of the user’s notifications, as well as quick action buttons when a setting has been activated, like the ability to turn flight mode off right from the lock screen.
The Samsung Galaxy Alpha is also an extremely powerful and snappy smartphone, actions are quickly responded too, menus come up in a flash and animations seem to fly by.
This is all thanks to some new software optimisation, and the inclusion of a new Exynos 5 Octa SoC in some versions of the phone, which is a brand new chip made by Samsung that can switch between four low-power processors for the light tasks, and four supercharged versions for the more needing of tasks like gaming.
This means that the phone can keep a lot of its resources most of the time.
We tested the Galaxy Alpha with the GeekBench 3 software where it managed a multi-score of 3,197, which puts the Alpha ahead of the S5, which grabbed a 2,989.
One thing that does let the Alpha down is its battery, set at just 1,860mAh, it requires you to charge it at least once every day as the Alpha will only just last till the end of the day with moderate usage, Samsung has however included a new battery saving mode in the Galaxy Alpha, allowing users to switch the display to greyscale, simplify the home screen and restrict the phone to its bare essentials.
However this is only aimed for situations where you only have something like 5% battery left as it does mean the phone becomes useless for everything but the basics.
In terms of the basic features, the Samsung Galaxy Alpha works just as well as you would expect from a phone of this caliber. In fact during our testing we found that the phone managed to make calls at a fantastic standard, even in the most signal lacking of areas, where quality was generally crisp, clear and detailed.
In terms of messaging, Samsung has included their own messaging application, which is like most of Samsung’s other applications, ugly yet functional.
However at its basis it’s pretty much the same as any other messaging application that you have used on an Android smartphone, however with a few more features. One of the best of which is the ability to add your most used contacts to the top row of the app, allowing you to quickly message the most important of your friends and family.
Samsung’s keyboard is also pretty similar to the application, it looks horrible, yet it works really well when in use, featuring a great predictive word selection system, and a nice keyboard layout that makes it easy t type quickly on the Alpha.
For the web browser, Samsung is still offering two options for the user, Google Chrome and Samsung’s own internet application.
In our opinion, Samsung’s one isn’t really worth using when compared to Chrome, so we would say that you should swap that out from Chrome asap.
That said both of the browsers do work really well, allowing for a number of features like bookmarking, whilst remaining super speedy. In our tests we found that we were able to browser the web pretty well with these browsers, and thanks to the Alpha’s 4G connection this is as quick to do at home as it is on the go, as long as where you are has a 4G connection anyway.
Around the back of the Samsung Galaxy Alpha you will find its 12 megapixel camera, which is a little lower than the Samsung Galaxy S5’s 16 megapixel camera.
Despite the lower pixel count, the Alpha still takes great images in a range of different conditions, and thanks to the design of the smartphone it’s also nice to handle whilst doing so.
To top this off, taking photos with the camera is also really snappy, there’s no need to mess around with settings to get the best results, and the focus speed is incredibly quick.
If you do what to check out the settings however you will find a number of options, the main three of which is a toggle for the HDR mode, a selective focus mode that will focus on close-up targets and blur out the background of the image, much like a DSLR. There is one difference however, with the Alpha you can focus on either the foreground or the background after the picture has been taken.
There’s also a number of other modes in the camera settings, including Beauty Face which removes wrinkles and spots, Shot & More which allows for the application of various effects and post-processing options, Best Photo, and Best Face, both of which take a selection of shots and then allow you to pick the best one.
Aside from simple photos, the Alpha also allows for great video capture, allowing you to record 4K video, but as default the camera will record 1080p and allow users to use a number of other settings like picture-in-picture.
Obviously this won’t mean that much for most people as it requires you to view the content on a UHD display, which the Alpha does not have.
The Samsung Galaxy Alpha is a fantastic smartphone that marks a change in Samsung’s way of thinking, featuring a new sleek design that finally its rid of the plastic casing that we are used to, and replacing it with a sleek, clean and modern aluminium plating that has been machined perfectly to make the smartphone feel both premium in the hand, and conformable to hold.
On top of all that, the Alpha features a great looking deploys that shows graphics in clear colours, without a lack of sharpness and with crisp and clean clarity.
Then it goes on to offer extras for the photographers out there, using a camera that does feature less pixels than the Samsung Galaxy S5 but creates images and videos that look great to view, even offering the ability to record video at the new 4K resolution.
And then if that isn’t enough the phone goes on to provide high-tech features like fingerprint scanning and even a heart rate sensor.
But even with all that, we can’t help but think that the software lets the Samsung Galaxy Alpha down, still featuring that same bloated design that we have always hated on previous Samsung smartphones, something which we hoped would have been fixed alongside Samsung’s new design techniques.
That is however pretty easily fixed with a simple install of a different Android overlay from the Google Play Store.
You can find out more about the Samsung Galaxy Alpha on Vodafone’s website, where they are offering the smartphone on their pay monthly plan for free on plans from £30.50. It is also available from a number of retailers and networks both in the UK and in other territories.
Disclosure: Vodafone sent us a sample of the Samsung Galaxy Alpha for the purposes of this review, it was however sent back at the conclusion of it.